An Exhortation to Elders (Acts 20:17-32)

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We recently had the great joy as a church of affirming as elders two men, after an extensive internship programme. For several years, they informally functioned in a shepherding capacity, but with their affirmation they were introduced formally to the church as shepherds of God’s flock.

This is a task which, like marriage, is not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly but rather soberly and in the fear of God. To be entrusted with the shepherding of God’s flock is, quite literally, an awesome—awe-inspiring—responsibility.

At BBC, elders are not voted upon by ballot. The present leaders in the church identify and train men in the church that they believe are eligible, according to 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, for the office of elder. Their names are set before the church as “elder interns” at the beginning of the process, and after a time of intense training, when the present elders believe that they have sufficiently proved themselves, their names are set before the church to be affirmed as elders. The names are kept before the church for several weeks (an affirmation date being publicised to the church), during which time any concerns can be addressed either to a present elder of the church, or directly to the men themselves. It is during this time that the church “votes” on the names before them. When the appointed date arrives, assuming that no pressing concerns remain unaddressed, the men are affirmed during a Sunday morning service as elders of the church.

It is always important, during this process, to listen to the Scriptural description of an elder’s responsibility before God and the church. Most recently, we did so by examining the words of Paul to the elders of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20:17-32. It is from that particular message that this study arose.

Paul was on his way to Jerusalem but in the providence of God he was also on his way to prison. He seems to have had a premonition that he would not pass through Ephesus again. And thus he called the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him in Miletus.

As they gathered, he gave his final admonition to them concerning their ministry in these memorable words. It should be noted that this is the only record in the book of Acts of an address to Christians. It therefore is very significant. Why? Because everything rises and falls on leadership!

Importantly, Paul gathered the elders (plural) of the church for this final address. The biblical church is governed by a plurality of elders. Acts 20:17 makes this patently clear. And, as we will see, the terms “elder,” “pastor” and “bishop” (overseer) are used interchangeably of the same office in Scripture.

Let us listen and learn (or at least be reminded of) what God expects of His chosen elders; and therefore what both the church and the eldership must expect as well.

Paul’s Example

Paul was not a perfect example of the biblical elder, for he—like all of us—was a sinful, fallible human being. As far as human examples go, however, he was without doubt the best example we have of a biblical elder. Since he appointed and trained other elders, we would do well to observe his life.

Elders must pay heed to apostolic example, particularly when it comes to shepherding. To be Christlike is to be a shepherd, and since Paul may have been the most Christlike person in history, elders ought to take their cue from his life. Let us then consider Paul’s example and learn from it.

He Served the Lord

As a fruitful elder, Paul saw himself as a bond slave of Jesus Christ. He referred to himself as such in Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:10, and Titus 1:1. The apostle James similarly considered himself a bond servant of Christ (James 1:1), as did the apostles Jude (Jude 1) and John (Revelation 1:1). And Paul’s attitude of servanthood is clearly seen here in our text.

From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Acts 20:17-21)

Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he had “lived among [them], serving the Lord with all humility.” First and foremost, the elder must see himself as a servant.

I recently had opportunity to visit a seminary in another country while Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was there to deliver a speech to a group of seminary students. He was introduced as “his grace, the most honourable and the right reverend Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.” I hoped (in vain) that he would stand up after that introduction and say, “You can call me Rowan.”

Servants are not obsessed with titles. I frequently preach at other churches, and am very deliberate in the way that I introduce myself. When asked to say a few words about myself or my ministry, I have a standard formula: “I am a member of Brackenhurst Baptist Church, where I serve as an elder in the capacity of pastor-teacher.” It is important to me that I first be known as a member of a church. The office of pastor-teacher is merely the capacity in which I serve as a member of the church.

Elders are those who see themselves under authority, and only to the degree that they do so are they able to fruitfully exercise authority. But let’s notice from Paul’s example what it is that characterises such servanthood.

He Served with Humility

Paul served “with all humility” (v. 19). Biblical humility is a disposition of dependence. Biblical elders, like Paul, understand that they are entirely dependent upon Christ. Peter similarly understood the need for humility when he wrote, “Be clothed with humility.” (In the immediate context, Peter was writing to both elders and their flock.) Humility is nonnegotiable for church life and leadership. This principle is illustrated in Matthew’s Gospel at a time when the disciples—the leaders in training—wondered what true kingdom greatness looked like.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

(Matthew 18:1-4)

Elders need to see themselves as jars of clay. I was once spending some time with a missionary in his country of service, and a local lady who was with us offered to buy some local sweets for us. The sweets were placed in a small clay jar, and when the missionary asked her what we should do with the jar when the sweets were finished, she said simply, “You throw it away.” The jar served a purpose, but it was entirely dispensable. Once it had served its purpose it could be put aside.

In a very real sense, that is how the elder must view his service. He plays a role in God’s kingdom work, but he is entirely dispensable.

It is interesting that Paul himself claimed to have served with humility. If I were to make a similar claim, I am saddened to think that it might raise some eyebrows. But we know enough of Paul’s life to know that it was not an empty claim, driven by a false sense of humility. He was a genuinely humble man, and no one who knew anything of his ministry could seriously challenge that claim. His claim strikes us as entirely true and not in the least strange.

Elder, ultimately God is your audience, and you serve to please Him alone. Your driving passion must be for people to see Christ in your ministry. On William Carey’s grave, at his own request, these words are inscribed: “Both 17 August 1961, died 9 June 1834. A wretched, poor and helpless worm on thy kind arms I fall.” That is the humility of which the Bible speaks in biblical eldership.

He Served with Heartache

The second characteristic of Paul’s servanthood was heartache. He served “with many tears and trials which happened to [him] by the plotting of the Jews” (v. 19). He was proved by the testing that he underwent.

The eldership requires both a soft and a strong heart. The elder must be tender with those to whom he ministers, but he must also be willing to stand under criticism and difficulty. Paul experienced both “affliction” and “anguish of heart” in his ministry (2 Corinthians 2:4).

Tears necessarily accompany the elder’s ministry. Many times, they are tears of difficulty and anguish. There are tears for those who reject God’s Word and thus destroy themselves and their families. There are tears over sin in the church. There are tears for those who don’t seek first the kingdom of God. There are tears because, the more you love, the less you are loved (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:15). There are tears for personal suffering—slander and misrepresentation. There are tears because the elder sees how much people are missing out on.

But there are also tears of joy. Despite the many difficulties that the elder faces in his ministry, he can be sure that times of great joy will be experienced. It was wonderful to watch the recent news broadcasts of trapped Chilean miners being rescued. It was moving to watch these men shed tears as they embraced their families. And the elder’s ministry will likewise be filled with certain joys.

One of the great joys I have experienced recently is over the conversion of the wife of one of our former church members. He was a faithful member of our church for years, and we prayed for years for his wife’s conversion. There seemed to be no work of the Spirit in her life. Recently, he emigrated to the United Kingdom, and shortly after he arrived there I received a moving email from his wife describing her conversion and her passion for Christ. I have received periodic emails from her since, and I am moved to tears as I read of her commitment to the Lord. Recently she asked me to pray for her and her husband as they approached the elders of their church to ask about the possibility of a midweek Bible study, something the church currently does not have. It is a great joy for me to witness what God has done in her life.

Elders shed tears of joy as marriages and homes are restored, as people struggle with and overcome sin, and as church members manifest an increasing commitment to seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Tears are shed as people are converted and disciples grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. The difficulties are often quickly forgotten as the joys of ministry are experienced.

He Served with Helpfulness

Paul’s service was further characterised by helpfulness. He “kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to [them], and taught [them] publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 20-21). Paul did not draw back from giving to these elders and this church all the truth that they needed for their spiritual benefit.

The word translated “helpful” speaks of something that is “profitable” or “advantageous.” It literally means “to carry together.” Paul gave them the whole package of gospel truth. His ministry was comprehensive—both in its communication and in its content.

Paul comprehensively communicated the gospel. He used three words to describe his communication: “proclaimed,” “taught” and “testifying.” He taught publicly and privately. He preached and he discipled. Elder, teach God’s Word in every way that you can! Teach it one-on-one. Teach it in small groups. Teach it corporately to the church. Teach it everywhere you can. That is what is required from the elder.

Paul’s gospel ministry was also comprehensive in its content. He declared “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was not always easy to remain faithful to this ministry, but he did not shrink back.

If you will be faithful to your calling as an elder, you cannot shrink back from the hard sayings of the gospel. You can only minister effectively to people as you share the truth of God’s Word as it is. I think again of the ministry of William Carey, who opposed the cultural sins that he saw around him. It was not an easy thing to do, but he was more committed to God’s Word than he was to the comfort of the people.

During a visit to India I once had the opportunity to visit the first church that Carey planted, and to see the place where his first convert, Krishna Pal, was baptised. It struck me that even a relatively simple issue like baptism was a huge commitment on the part of Carey and his converts. For Indian converts to be baptised was a huge step of faith, because it would mean excommunication from family and open persecution from unbelievers. But Carey was committed to declaring the whole counsel of God, even if it invited strong opposition.

We note also that Paul’s ministry was cross-cultural. He ministered “to Jews, and also to Greeks.” The task of the elder is to shepherd all the flock. It is certainly true in our church that cultural diversity exists. I would venture to say that this is so in most biblical local churches. The elder’s work must transcend culture because it is committed to God’s absolute Word.

In short, elders must work hard—to the point of exhaustion—to help the local church inherit all the blessings that are available in Christ.

He Served Heartily

Paul “proclaimed” the gospel to these leaders and the church (v. 20). The word means “to solemnly declare.” His ministry was not half-hearted, and no elder can faithfully fulfil his calling without a wholehearted commitment to minister the gospel to his flock.

He Sacrificed His Life

Not only did Paul serve the Lord, but he also sacrificed his life for this church.

And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.

(Acts 20:22-27)

Shepherds must lay down their life, first for the Shepherd, and then for the sheep. Paul knew that he was headed for imprisonment and eventual martyrdom. He knew that the heartache he had faced thus far in his ministry was not behind him. But he did not ask for a second opinion. He was committed to obedience, regardless of the cost. He was willing to lay his life down for the sheep—because he had already laid it down for the shepherd.

The Good Shepherd laid His life down for the sheep, and those who are committed to Christlike ministry must be like Christ in this regard. They must lay down their lives for the sheep. Let’s consider from our text what this will require.

Focus

First, it will require focus. Paul did not know all that awaited him in Jerusalem, though he was confident that he was headed for imprisonment (vv. 22-23). Nevertheless, he had set his sights firmly on Jerusalem, and he would go despite the cost.

Let me suggest that the eldership is not for the faint of heart. Those who are called to lead are not called to a life of ease. They are called, instead, to death to self. They must give of their time, talents and treasures in perhaps a greater way than others.

Fearlessness

Second, it will require fearlessness. Paul understood the chains that awaited him in Jerusalem, “but none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to me, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24). Literally, “I make no account, nor do I hold my life precious to myself.”

The word “testify” speaks of earnest and thorough testimony. Paul’s overriding focus was the testimony of the Lord. The fear of the Lord delivered him from the fear of men.

Elders must fearlessly focus on the ultimate goal, which of course is the glory of God. Nothing could move Paul, and nothing must move us.

But we cannot miss the fact that Paul was joyfully fearless. His desire was to finish his race “with joy.” He was joyous about giving Christ his best. He was filled with the joy of knowing that the seed that died would not remain alone (John 12:24). He was overjoyed at the fact that the gospel would ultimately bear fruit for God’s glory.

I recently learned that a particular seminary in India trains many foreign students from Burma for the ministry. My mind immediately raced to the ministry of Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma, who laboured tirelessly, though much pain, for the glory of God. Judson buried three wives and several children during his ministry, and faced much other heartache. He ministered for some seven years before he saw his first convert. But his ministry continues to bear fruit today.

Elders, our commitment must be that of Carey: Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.

Faithfulness

Third, it will require faithfulness. Paul could confidently leave the Ephesian elders to their work because he knew that he had “not shunned to declare to [them] the whole counsel of God” (vv. 24-27).

At the end of the day, this is what God expects of His undershepherds. “It is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). Though we can certainly anticipate fruit for God’s glory from faithful ministry, our task is ultimately to be faithful, and to trust God with the fruit.

Paul’s Exhortation

The heart of the passage is vv. 28-32, where Paul, having recounted his ministry in Ephesus, leaves the elders with an exhortation.

Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Paul’s example grounds this exhortation in reality. It can be done because, after all, Paul himself did it. We have access to the same Spirit and the same Word, and we can therefore perform the same task. Like Paul, elders can serve the Lord by sacrificing their lives in the shepherding of God’s lambs. God’s chosen, Christ-centred and Spirit-appointed elders must be characterised as those who serve the Lord, sacrificing their lives in shepherding the flock.

The Command

The command is essentially that elders must pay attention. “Take heed,” exhorts the apostle, a word which means to “pay attention,” to “beware” or to “be on guard.” Broadly speaking, Paul highlights two areas in which elders must pay attention.

Pay Attention to Yourself

“Therefore take heed to yourselves,” said Paul to the Ephesians elders.

A pastor recently told me of a question that was asked of him: If the shepherds minister to the flock, who ministers to the shepherds? The answer, in part, is other sheep (for elders are sheep themselves) and other shepherds (remember, the biblical local church is ruled by a plurality of elders). But perhaps more fundamentally, the Shepherd is the One who ministers to the shepherds.

Of course, this is not to deny that Christ, the Good Shepherd, ministers to all His sheep, but elders in a particular way require this ministry. Elders must therefore pay very special attention to their devotion. John Stott said of elders, “They cannot adequately care for others if they neglect the care of and the culture of their own souls.”

Elders cannot afford to lose sight of the Shepherd. They must feed themselves as they feed the flock. Elders must read, they must study, they must pray—fervently. The elder must zealously guard his devotional life, for only as he is fed by the Chief Shepherd will he fruitfully feed the flock. My mentor in ministry often used to say that pastors and missionaries minister from overflow. Elders need to understand this.

Not only must elders pay (close) attention to their devotion, but they must also pay close heed to their dependence. They must ever be aware of their complete dependence on Christ. A Dutch poem, translated by William Hendriksen, speaks beautifully to this. It reads in part,

Make me, O Lord, a child again,
So tender, frail and small;
In self possessing nothing,
And in thee possessing all.

Paul was certainly painfully aware of his dependence upon God. At one point in his life he described himself as “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9). Later, he went further and described himself as “less than the least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8). Toward the end of his life, he went still further and described himself as the “chief” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). He seems to have grown in his understanding of his dependence upon God. He knew that he was nothing but a jar of clay.

But I would add that elders also need to pay close attention to their dependents. That is, they must understand that their primary place of ministry is their own home. After all, the elder’s wife and children are also members of the flock. The elder cannot neglect his family if he will faithfully fulfil God’s calling. He must adorn the gospel in his own home if he will hope to adorn it in the church.

Pay Attention to Your Sheep

“Therefore take heed . . . to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,” continued Paul.

Paul describes the church as a “flock.” Clearly, he is speaking of them as sheep. Sheep require leadership, care, love and watchfulness. Sheep in a flock belong to one another; they belong in community.

Paul further describes the church as “the church of God which he purchased with His own blood” (literally, “with the blood of His own [Son]”). This flock is valuable to God. The elder cannot afford to despise any member of the flock, for each member has been purchased at an inestimable cost. The faithful elder has a proper estimation of the flock.

But having described the flock, the apostle goes on to describe the shepherds’ duty. Elders must pay close attention to their duty.

According to v. 17, Paul gathered and spoke to the “elders” of the church in Ephesus. In his description of their duty he describes them as “shepherds” (or “pastors”) and “overseers” (or “bishops”). The three terms—elder, pastor, bishop—all describe the same office, though each emphasises a slightly different aspect of the office.

Paul exhorts the elders “to shepherd the church of God.” The word “shepherd” means “to nourish,” “to tend,” “to lead,” “to rule” or “to feed.” Elders (or pastors) prepare the flock for sacrifice (cf. Romans 12:1-2). And surely what they feed on will affect the quality of what they have to give.

I don’t know a great deal about cattle farming, but I recently saw a cow somewhere feeding on a rubbish heap, and I immediately thought to myself that I would not want to drink that cow’s milk. Now, perhaps that cow’s milk would remain completely unaffected by what it eats, but I am quite certain that God’s flock is never unaffected in its sacrifice by what it is fed. Pastors must be sure to feed their flock the wholesome Word of God, so that the flock has a worthwhile sacrifice for its Saviour.

Paul also speaks of the elders as “overseers.” The word is the Greek word from which we derive the term “bishop.” Originally, a “bishop” was a political office. The word describes one who inspects, or ensures that needs are met. In Roman colonies, a bishop was something like a contemporary ombudsman. But the term eventually came to be applied to leaders of churches because, of course, elders are assigned the task of inspecting and ensuring that the flock’s needs are met.

For the record, I do not wish to be called “bishop” (and certainly not “archbishop”!), but clearly part of the elder’s task is to minister as a bishop. The elder must be on the ground, knowing the condition of the flock. This does not mean that the elder must fulfil every need of which he is aware, but ultimately he is responsible to ensure that the needs brought to his attention are filled—either through his own or through the ministry of others.

Bishops inspect for wounds and disease. They care for the flock. This is the work of the elder.

At the same time, the elder—the pastor or bishop—must pay close attention to the dangers that threaten the flock. Paul warned the elders in Ephesus of the wolves that would soon enter (vv. 29-31). We know from his later letters to Timothy, who remained in Ephesus as a pastor, that there were problems at the church.

The world is no friend of grace, and the pastor must guard and protect the flock from that which seeks to ruin its sacrifice.

I recently met a 92-year-old man who had been a minister in his church for over 50 years. I soon learned that the man himself was not converted. His church never taught the need to be born again, to be saved. Though he filled an office, he was in fact only a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The elder who is attentive to the dangers facing the flock requires discernment. I was saddened recently to browse a so-called Christian library and to find L. Ron Hubbard’s scientology writings scattered among the books on the shelves. If we are not discerning we will do more harm than good to the flock.

Diligence is also required of those who will faithfully shepherd the flock. For three years, Paul “did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.” He was diligent in his shepherding ministry. When the elder suspects that all is not right in the life of a sheep, he must surely make the difficult call or visit. Confrontation, while never pleasant, is necessary in the work of shepherding. The elder must be willing to be misunderstood for the good of the flock.

The Commendation

As Paul began to wrap up his address to these elders, he left them with a commendation: “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (v. 32). The word “commend” means “to place alongside” or “to deposit for protection or as a trust.” It was the Word of God that was able to build up both the church and the elders. These Ephesian elders needed to be fed with God’s Word if they would help others to be fed too.

Elders, we can only keep the command to the degree that we are committed to the sufficiency of Scripture. I mentioned above that I had the opportunity to sit through an address of the Archbishop of Canterbury to some seminary students at a particular college. During a questions and answers session after his address, someone asked him about a strategy for missions to areas where persecution of Christian is rife. “All I can say,” answered the Archbishop, “is to witness a miracle of not responding in kind, and then to share it.” A friend who was sitting with me leaned over and whispered, “So, are the Scriptures not sufficient?”

Elders are tasked with the assignment of building up the flock (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-14; Ephesians 2:20; Colossians 2:7; Jude 20). But this will require a firm commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture. God’s Word alone is sufficient to build up His people for His glory.

Fellow elders, let us heed Paul’s exhortation and together work to edify our local churches that we might all receive a full reward.

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